I was, like too many others, a film student living in New York when K introduced me to the work of Frank Takashi. Up until that point, for 18 of my 19 years, I’d lived a quiet, middle-class life in a middle-class suburb where my greatest hardship was this: that I could never point to some inciting source of my existential angst, some crack in my life from which all other cracks radiated. K showed me Takashi’s work, and she showed me the depth of my lack.
As a kid, I’d sensed something missing and strained for the illusion of depth. Those standard, middle-class rebellions: dyed hair, black nails, combat boots, metal through my nose. In despair, my parents gave me a video camera, a cutting-edge digital model regifted from an office white elephant. I considered it the first true event of my life. I was 15, and it was 1996. For the next two years, as my parents watched the blonde spectacles of JonBenet Ramsey, Princess Diana, and Tara Lipinski parade across the TV, I labored over quiet suburban dramas, seeking to manufacture a crack. In my films, normal girls discovered a dead twin, or a father’s homosexuality, or a mother’s heroin addiction. When I got a scholarship to a prestigious experimental program in New York, I went and didn’t look back.
I soon saw where I stood. There were girls with combat boots on every corner. Piercings in places I hadn’t dared imagine. And everywhere, everywhere, people leaning across tables or against walls to talk about their art. I was good enough in digital, but not good enough to appreciate the classic films beloved by the program, all shot in analog 16- or 35-mm. I was good enough to realize that the camera I’d cherished was somebody’s cast-off suburban mid-life crisis, but not good enough to avoid its stink of ordinariness. I was good enough for one of four scholarships in my class — a small package with fine print about financial need — but not good enough for the best, merit-based one.
That scholarship had gone to K. I noticed her on the very first day, across the orientation hall: petite, long-haired, a cipher even after the semester started in earnest. She was an international student who carried her absurd moniker as lightly as she carried the praise the instructors heaped on her. I was good enough to offer convincing congratulations at the end of K’s glowing critiques, as if she and I hadn’t locked eyes dozens of times before, as if I hadn’t seen her gaze slip mine, dismissing.
I was good enough to see the gap between myself and the best, and young enough, that first year, to think I could close the gap. If K’s genius could be attributed to her exotic childhood, to the rumored glamour of ambassador parents, then mine would come from hard work. I refused social invitations, which wasn’t hard because there were few. Alone in my apartment, I shot test reels on a new handheld Super 8. I logged more hours in the department than any other student. I thought it’d make a difference: the watching, the camera, the days spent inhabiting the same space as esteemed faculty, making small talk and breathing in the curiously minty smell of the department carpet. But I never got past pleasantries. There was a stilted quality to my interactions with the department, as there was an artifice to my films. Technically speaking, I improved. Yet no matter how I reframed shots or chased the best light across the city, my films lacked some essential animus. Sure, the characters had tortured families and complex flaws and backstories like dark scummy ponds, but it was as if they hadn’t drunk quite deeply enough from the draught of life. You got the sense they fell limp the second the credits rolled. My professors critiqued my pacing and editing, but their interest soon waned. Domestic, they labeled my work, and turned to students with more solvable flaws.
In short I was good enough to experience the queer deflation in my chest — not a steady pressure but an uneven one, full of edges, as the smooth aluminum of a can bristles with new surfaces when crushed — as my film was passed over in the end-of-year competition. The winning first-year entry was, of course, by K: a three-minute study of light changing on a wall. Sky above, puddle below. Fragments of chin or eyebrow or earlobe appeared periodically. It should have been trite. It wasn’t. I attended the viewing in the department lounge, and after the others headed out, I watched again. Again. Again. By the end of the eighth viewing, I found myself knelt on the carpet, the taste of mint stabbing my throat. I might as well have stayed the night because that film continued to show behind my eyes when I got home. I saw the scenes I’d memorized as well as others that didn’t exist. Two fingers scratching an earlobe. The camera tipping to show the beauty mark beside her lip. Scenes trembled and lengthened and skittered through my room as I lay prone. The winning film haunted me because it was alive.
I wasn’t at the party to see K accept the trophy in her ridiculously small hands. That weekend, after my roommates went out, I got sordidly, privately drunk, like a stereotype from my own films. Domestic, I thought as I mopped spilled beer in my kitchen.
I went silent the last two weeks of the semester, unnoted by faculty and classmates. Around me was the hum, then buzz, then roar of summer: windows flung open, plans made for beach houses in Newport and aunts in Nice or Sorbonne, phone numbers swapped so classmates could share footage or serve as actors on one another’s summer projects. I had a voicemail from my parents saying I was welcome home, the recording as cheery and harsh as the suburbs’ light.
I was good enough by that point to understand that no amount of effort would save me from myself; it would require outside intervention. And so when K dropped a note into my campus mailbox, inviting me to stay for three weeks at her family’s summer house upstate, I took it as a sign. I went.
K picked me up in a dented Camaro so wide it nearly filled the one-way street. I was expecting another car — feminine, small, neat — up until the moment she opened the rusted passenger door. She wore her same uniform despite the muggy grip of June: brown sweater, oxfords, an ankle-length skirt with knife pleats that would have looked nun-like on anyone else but on her achieved a strangely sensual effect. I gaped. I didn’t understand, and then I did. K in that ugly car made sense just as, at 1:36 in her film, the perfect triangles of light made sense against the spatter of urine.
For the first half-hour we were silent. K rarely spoke; in group critiques she noted seemingly frivolous details: the folded page of a book, an extra-long beat. No one ever expanded on what she said; sometimes I caught the others trading sideways smiles. But the details she identified stuck in my mind. I’d rewatch a film afterward and see it the same yet changed, seeming to surge around K’s observation as water shifts around a submerged rock.
And then K tapped my arm. She pointed to the glove compartment, where I found two pairs of black sunglasses. One went into K’s palm. The second, she indicated, was for me.
The glasses slid down K’s archless nose to settle, huge and bat-like, in the precise center of her small face. The effect was both eerie and correct. They wouldn’t sit that way on my face, which was longer, less symmetrical. I wondered if that was K’s intention: to invite comparison.
We’d spoken five or six times before that car ride, only ever across a circle of peers. Yet we couldn’t help but chart the other’s progress across classrooms and auditoriums. K and I were the only Asians, in fact the only nonwhite students, in our year. We made up two of the four scholarships. It didn’t make us friendly, exactly, but it created between us an expectation like familiarity. We were bound in the department’s mind though I could tick off our differences: her smallness, my clumsiness; her exotic international family, my stodgy parents stuck for generations in the first place they’d found employment; her merit, my need; her long hair, my short. Maybe that’s why I accepted her invitation as my due.
The sunglasses I held were fabulously light, in the way of objects that are either cheap as shit or unfathomably expensive. With K, it might have been either. At 2:07 in K’s winning film, a stain at the bottom right of the wall ripples unexpectedly, then takes off. More than one person gasped during the viewing. The stain was a flying creature — moth or bat or bird. K, unlike the rest of us, had the restraint not to follow its flight. For the film’s remaining minute, our awareness of the creature created an almost unbearable tension. I imagined rolling down the car window and letting the sunglasses fly.
I kept them clenched in my fist.
“You should wear those,” K said. “For every hundred hours of unfiltered exposure to daylight, your eyes lose half a percent of their ability to perceive color.” She twisted the steering wheel to avoid something I didn’t spot — roadkill, probably. We drove another quarter-mile. “That’s why my work is so good.”
She spoke as she did in critiques: flat, deadpan, with no room for contradiction. I couldn’t tell if it was mockery or advice. Either possibility was insulting. I squinted, angled my thighs away from her. I sat in discomfort for the next three hours.
The summer house wasn’t the mansion I’d expected but converted barn, the adjoining fields green and white with tall, stalky weeds. K’s parents proved equally unremarkable: soft-spoken and creased. The beautiful, aloof aliens classmates had speculated of were nowhere to be found — no parents who could, in short, take ownership for K’s talent. Her father asked a forgettable question about my studies. His forehead glistened with sweat.
Her mother greeted me in Japanese.
I shook my head, though in fact I’d seen enough Japanese films to understand key phrases. Already I resented them and their house, resented their drabness, resented their attempt to box me as they hadn’t managed to box their daughter.
K spoke rapid Japanese with her parents. I wandered to a beige couch that looked eerily familiar. With a growing sense of doom, I checked beneath and recognized the logo stamped on the legs: my mother had chosen the same couch from a generic catalogue. And on the windows the same flowered drapes, and on the tables the same ugly photo frames. When K opened the door to the stairs, I knew I’d hear the same squeal of ill-fitted wood. I’d traveled four hours with a girl I disliked to end up in a home as familiar as K was not — K who’d stepped out of this place like Athena from Zeus’s head, fully formed. This was no Nice, no Sorbonne, no exotic Tokyo on which to train the camera I’d brought along. The next three weeks stretched before me, a long, dreary road along which I saw no surprises.
I fell into routine. I saw K at breakfast and dinner, which were, respectively, cornflakes in whole milk and creamy pastas with overdressed greens. The fridge bristled with bottles of Kraft dressing that clattered in formation like plastic soldiers when the door was opened. I couldn’t tell if the family always dined this way, or whether they’d made a concession to the imagined needs of my larger, Americanized body. I sometimes heard K moving at night through the wall that connected our bedrooms, but where she went between breakfast and dinner was a mystery. She was never present for lunch. That meal I spent alone with her parents. Her mother invariably passed the dressing just before I could ask for it, an oppressive thoughtfulness that lodged the words in my throat. Any observer would imagine the three of us as daughter, mother, father — complete without K.
Where did K go during those ten hot hours, and what did she eat? I inspected the cabinets and found no snacks, no bread, no peanut butter, no Jell-O or canned tuna. Only dry pasta, jarred sauce, more dressing. No Tupperware or Ziplocs to carry food out. Anyhow, there were no leftovers: At the end of each meal, K’s mother threw the remaining pasta in the trash, scraped the remaining sauce from its jar, and washed the jar before storing it. Only the Kraft dressing went back in the fridge. I wondered if K’s mother couldn’t read the English labels, which would have told her to refrigerate the alfredos and carbonaras — but the idea of asking her, of helping her, made me squeamish.
Once — it was about two o’clock on an afternoon oddly dark with encroaching storm — I did encounter K during the day. She was going down the stairs and I was going up and both of us moved aside, waiting for the other to pass. Politeness crackled in the air; later, the lightning storm would flatten the grasses, but I’d fail to capture the effect, though I’d waste half a reel of film. Black frame after black frame, with a few blown out to white. I gave in first, passing K, close enough that my hand brushed a bottle of Kraft dressing half-hidden in her pleats. She didn’t move until I’d left. I didn’t see where she headed, whether she drank that dressing straight from the bottle, her head tipped back. The concession felt like another loss.
Under the department’s gaze, I hadn’t wanted to tug at the thread believed to bind us; here, it came apart at a twitch. I decided K found me as disappointing as I found her life. I began to avoid going downstairs until she’d left for the day; afterward, in those empty hours, I worked on my submission for the second-year competition.
Though my scholarship (and K’s) guaranteed a third year of funding, that third year was only a shadow year, a kind of public fizzling if your spark had failed to light. Ostensibly, the second-year prize was a $100 gift card and a handshake; really, it was a recommendation by the faculty for coveted internships with famous alumni. Success meant molting the school completely.
K, it was generally agreed, would never spend a third year at the school.
I wanted an internship so badly it was acid in my mouth. My tongue was sour that summer, my esophagus constantly flexing like some ancient lizard stirred from its torpor. I suffered heartburn, a condition so cliché that I’d never have assigned it to my own characters. I wandered the fields with my camera as my insides kinked and the pastas reasserted themselves in rolling burps. The fields weren’t my domestic. They were half-wild, with snagging thorns and grasses that deposited seeds in my jeans. There were no people to film. I’d half-entertained an idea of filming K herself before the shape of the summer — a shape defined around her absence — became clear. Sometimes an idea for a shot would shimmer tentatively like heat off a rock — only to be doused by the question, How would K frame it?
And then the solstice. The day when K’s absence stretched longest. I masturbated angrily in bed to the sound of her descending the stairs; by the time the breakfast noises quieted, I was sweatier than when I’d begun and the smell of my room made me wild. I took a bottle of ranch from the fridge and went into the pulsing heat, staying out with my camera long past the lunch and dinner hours. I tossed the Kraft after one sip; the dressing had acquired a nasty, viscous warmth that reminded me of the fluid matting my own pubic hair. My head grew light from hunger. Ideas spun, half-formed, like sun spots. I raised my camera.
At the end of my viewfinder was K herself, laid out in the grass.
My daring fell away — a daring that was K’s before mine, K whose hair was like mine but silkier; her eyes like mine but blacker; her body enough like mine that our classmates had confused us in the first week, though any fool could see K was better crafted, petite and fine-boned, the final product rather than the crude prototype. And anyhow no one in the department mistook us after seeing our films. K crouched in the grass behind her own camera, and I followed her line of sight: light on the blades, a lone centipede casting Jurassic shadows, its body bending the stalk and speaking to other weights, other endeavors, the great futility of the hour.
“You surprised me,” K said. Nothing in her posture spoke of surprise. She kept her camera on long after the centipede disappeared, then looked up for several minutes. Blank sky above, though many hours later, as I left her room, I’d see in that space a sliver of moon. As if her gaze had pulled it. “Good timing. I want to show you something, since we’ve become friends.”
What did K mean? For three weeks that summer I saw her daily at dinner, on the stairs. Saw her, occasionally, with her brown sweater off in her only concession to the swelter, her upper arms in a tee-shirt more shocking than another person’s nakedness. I turned away when I caught her, unsure if I should be embarrassed — if she should. Three weeks and never once could I read her. Was she earnest in calling me her friend? Mocking? Resentful? Competitive? Hospitable? Or, worst of all, completely unaware? Decades later, a famous filmmaker would lean forward on the night that was the definitive triumph of my career and toast me, his voice wine-damp as he said, The mark of a true artist is that she always has a judgment on the world. A specific slant of seeing. He would slash his index finger meaningfully between us, not close enough that I could conclude he was tracing the shape of my eyes, not far enough that I could rule it out. I would take the comment gracefully. He meant it as praise — for who he believed me to be. But the truth is, all that summer, whenever I was in K’s presence, instead of honing my gaze, I floated in a near-embryonic confusion. Cream sauces ran through me. The grass rustled day and night, a liquid sound. As K walked away, intending for me to follow, I felt a terrible vertigo. After watching that centipede I could no longer gauge how large things were, how small, how the earth curved or did not, the relative positions of the disappearing sun and the not-yet-appearing moon, whether I myself was heavy or light or young or old.
We sat on K’s bed as she fed a VHS tape into her TV. The slipcase was generic, red; she’d taped it, she explained, from a now-defunct Japanese television network. She named the director as Frank Takashi. When I asked if he was well known in Japan, K laughed — the second time I’d heard her laugh. No, K said, Frank Takashi was a Chinese-American migrant worker from the 1970s, a woman who took an American first name and a Japanese given name to create a blend of Americanism and exoticism she thought would best publicize her work. Was she successful, I asked. K stared at the TV, where the first mouth was taking shape.
For the rest of my life radiating out from this point, I would search books and newspapers for some imprint of Takashi. A ghost hunt, if you will. The sole reference was embedded in an article about a film festival. A dense, chaotic piece about an Oriental butcher. Impressionistic in quality and dreary in affect, this short film seems aimed toward a small, select audience. The article listed the director as FT. And the audience was me.
A man moves through a slaughterhouse in the 20-minute film, slashing at the hung carcasses of steers. He is ordinary. Nose too big, hairline uneven. Close shots follow the liver spots on his hands as he sticks a knife into the animals. There is no blood, due to either the coldness of the storeroom or the length of time the steers have hung. Occasionally, the man lifts slices of flesh to his mouth. The camera swings to that mouth, seemingly at random. Soon its stays, mesmerized. For the last two or three minutes the shot is tight on that dark wet hole, a blackness framed in muscle. The camera zooms. The hole bleeds to the edge of the frame. There is no soundtrack. The mouth never speaks. And yet it said everything.
As the tape played, I felt those old, inexplicable sadnesses of my childhood yawn open, the ones my parents had found so perplexing — because hadn’t they given me everything, the house and the clothes and the bike and the education and the security that their own parents, immigrating across the ocean, and they themselves, working thankless laundry shifts, hadn’t had? Hadn’t they given me everything I wanted except a reason for not having enough? Those old sadnesses rushed down. I realized that the crack I’d tried to construct for 19 years wasn’t crack but hole. A swallowing. Mouth and hunger: Frank Takashi showed these to me.
When the tape ended, I asked to see it again. K shook her head, saying she watched it only once a year so as to ration out the feeling. But though she slid the tape into its red case, Takashi remained in the room between us, a third presence. A sticky, coppery smell of slaughter stayed behind, growing stronger when K crossed her legs.
K said, “It reminds me of you.”
I gaped. There was no connection between what we’d seen and my plodding suburban realism. If anything, it was K’s work that took influence from Takashi’s — they shared a similar sense of surreality. Was K taking a dig at the third-generation ordinariness of my Chinese-American family, which I knew, better than anyone, to have been sanitized to deadly boredom? K crossed her legs again, and this time I recognized the smell as menstrual blood. I pictured the mess under her perfect pleats, and this emboldened me to ask, “Why?”
In class, I never asked follow-up questions when K spoke. With the eyes of the department on us, I betrayed no special interest in her. But I’d have said anything to see Takashi’s film again.
I expected condescension from K. Triumph. A pronouncement like the one about sunglasses that expanded the distance between us. Instead, K touched my throat. My neck went hot.
“Here,” K said, sliding a finger down my neck with the same exaggerated slowness with which Takashi’s camera had slid down the mouth. My esophagus thrashed. I tasted sour cream. K was about to say that she saw inside my domestic dramas, to the darkness that wedded my work to Takashi’s. For 19 years, I’d waited to hear someone see this: my esteemed professors, my classmates, my parents who looked at me with bovine confusion and asked, what about dental school? “I like watching you,” K said. “I like girls.”
Behind K the TV was once more a dead gray bubble. But it seemed that if I stared into the white dot of light at its center, I could see the film of our past year replayed in perfect miniature. The same, yet changed. This detail, once identified, tugged everything toward it. K’s room smelled of sweat and summer; neither of us had showered since coming in. Her sweater was off, the pale fish of her arms exposed. She sat propped on two pillows so that her body loomed high. Through her parted lips I saw a filling in her back molar — the cheap, tin kind. Underneath that cap, her eroding tooth; underneath her skirt, her blood. I moved my tongue in my sour mouth and imagined sliding it between her lips, as Takashi’s knife had slid between muscle. The animals had parted smoothly, without mess. What would it be like to push my tongue to K’s dead filling? To touch what made her ordinary?
I squeezed my sweaty thighs together. K looked cool. Regal. As if I’d been the one to say this thing. K, as always, unreadable.
It was then that the old vertigo overtook me. The room pulsed larger, then smaller. I saw this scene filmed from a different slant, and played at summer’s end in the department lounge. I imagined the department in the room with us, squinting. At my sweat and K’s stained panties. At our bodies pressed together, and how the horizontal positions, the low light, the interchanged limbs and the rumpled sheets, would render our carefully cultivated differences once more indistinguishable to their gaze: our bellies the same, veined and tender; our hair entangling into one mass. I’d cut my hair into an unflattering bob after seeing, on orientation day, how it would otherwise lose in comparison to K’s hair, which was just as long but more striking. I imagined the department turning away in disinterest. Domestic, they’d say, seeing our bodies proven to be one dull thing. K didn’t understand the sting of their apathy. Only me. Of the 20 students in our class, only I had put up a film that was never viewed to its end. The class spent so long critiquing my unrealistic characters that the bell rang before I could show the last 30 seconds. What did K know of that? At 2:37 in her winning film, the camera inverts so that the top of the wall is the bottom, the puddle the sky. Before the lens can focus, the aperture opens to let in light, too much. The last 23 seconds of K’s film are a bloom of white with the sound of something flapping. Twenty-three seconds of nothing, yet no one looked away.
I left K’s room a few hours later. The moon had appeared in precisely the place she’d looked to, so bright it seemed to speak. Its light was the last thing I remember hearing. Between that moon and the silent drive back a week later, nothing.
Once I returned to the city, I didn’t contact K. She would soon discover the tape gone missing from her room, the red slipcase now hidden in my backpack. I had limited time until she returned to demand it. With mere weeks left till the start of the semester, I worked feverishly on a new project that involved no actors, dialogue, or scores. By day I slipped the stolen tape from its case and watched. By night I filmed. I had no steers. I slashed frozen bags of chicken tenders. And for the first time I turned the camera on myself. I used my own mouth.
I was good enough to understand the depth of my crime, but not good enough to find it beneath me. My cuts were Takashi’s cuts, my framing Takashi’s, my editing Takashi’s, my tone Takashi’s. But who would know? I’d found no mention of Takashi in any book. And K — K I would handle later. I took a hammer to the tape at the end of summer, having memorized every second. With that, Frank Takashi ceased to exist except inside me.
I slept deeply that night and woke up with a throbbing in my foot. There was a small cut on my sole. I bandaged it up and walked gingerly for days, rolling my steps around the painful part, until I could no longer fit my swollen foot into a shoe. Only then did I insert tweezers into the bubble of half-healed flesh. I dug with a towel between my teeth. My breath hitched; I almost fainted from pain. Deep inside my foot was something both unexpected and unbearably trite: a shard of black plastic, the last of Takashi’s tape. I had to laugh.
My foot improved after that excavation, though I had to keep cleaning the exit wound, which was much larger and deeper than the original scratch. For months, a stray step could send pain snaking up my leg. This scared me as my thievery hadn’t. I’d swallowed Takashi; I hadn’t considered how my body might spit Takashi back up. My changed gait, my acid reflux, my new fanaticism for film archives where I sought Takashi’s name — these formed the path of my decades to come. For the first time, I saw that my future stretched out as endless and dreary as the summer.
Eventually my foot returned to normal, my life too. Or rather, I learned a new normal. The slight imbalance in my walk went largely unnoticed, except, years later, by a novelist lover who would reproduce it, cruelly, in a character. What didn’t return was K.
Come fall, she was missing from the classrooms, the department lounge. I spent the first days in a defensive crouch, snapping whenever people asked if I knew her whereabouts. But by the end of what would have been my third year at the school — had I not won the second-year competition, had I not secured an internship with a famous director who would one day sit on the committee that awarded me the prize of my career, the one that caused him to lean forward and explain the mark of the true artist — I accepted that K would never return. The school reported a family emergency. The one bland note I sent to her parents’ summer home came back stamped Return to sender, No longer at this address. This was 2001, a time before everyone was marked by a heat-trail of selfies and online presences; a time when a girl could disappear just like that. The initial curiosity at school was followed by a brief period of regretful murmurs, an even briefer period of silence, and then a new, enduring period of jokes made at K’s expense. Her name, her stilted critiques, her skirts, her precious filmmaking. The K the others conjured up over beery, late-night intimacies wasn’t the K I’d known — or was it? Certain qualities of my life were the same and yet changed. With K’s observant eye missing from the room, no one saw the change but me.
I didn’t complain. My second year was charmed. My classmates accepted me, or maybe they accepted my new films — and wasn’t that the same thing? I titled my series Mouth, though it eventually extended to other openings. I became known for receptions at which I served coy, messy foods: Jell-Os, puddings without spoons, smears of dressing meant to be eaten with the fingers.
Later in my career, as I moved through more and more circles in which I was the only one, or, more rarely, one of two or three, I would see my first year at the school more clearly. When K was around, the two of us had shared a perceived alliance that made others uneasy. But left alone, an animal of one has no herd, no defense. An animal of one is for safe consumption.
You’re pretty cool, a classmate said to me on the last night of our second year. A group of us were having drinks to celebrate my winning film. This classmate’s own work tended toward morally simplistic epics, full of explicit confessions and teary reunions. We called him Hollywood, but with more fondness than venom because he looked the part. A golden Adonis with perfect teeth. I’d sleep with him that night, and a week later he’d roll over in bed and ask me to mention him to the famous director. That night, with our classmates around us in that kitchen he said, “I used to think you were weird. Like what’s-her-name.”
He meant it as a compliment.
Better men followed that one, and better films. I mastered Takashi’s style, and as my budgets increased I got closer and closer to the Ur-film I could still summon by shutting my eyes. There was a connection between the men and the films, the bedroom and the palpable hunger in those receptions where I never put out quite enough snacks to appease the ever-growing crowds who called me a prodigy and invited me to their shows and clamored around me, desiring to be one picked out of 20, out of a hundred, out of thousands and thousands. I slept with and dated men and, twice, married them — all from the industry, all expecting of me a certain depravity. After all, they’d seen my work, which more and more often preceded me, as if a second or third body jostled in front of my own. The men pushed into my mouth with an insistence I recognized from the way I’d once studied K. Mostly I took this as triumph: no longer domestic, no longer expected to answer the question my mother had once asked as she tugged at my nose ring: Why? My films spoke for me.
There were a few women, but those relationships didn’t last. I was uneasy with women, couldn’t quit comparing our limbs and bellies, our appetites. Women called me shallow or frigid, unknowable or defensive.
I had what I wanted, mostly. And if the hole that Takashi left in me sometimes felt as restrictive as the suburb I’d fled — well. There was at least the pleasure of having identified the source, like a patient with chronic pain who finally receives a name for her condition. I achieved cult success though I never penetrated the mainstream. My peers spoke of me with awe; my baristas continued to look straight past me. When the industry began to get bored of me after 20 years — Mouth II, Mouth III, Mouths — it didn’t matter as much as I’d thought it would. By then, my name appeared on syllabi and in certain thick, glossy books where I still looked for Takashi’s name. I announced my retirement from filmmaking and spent my time on the speaking circuit, at festivals. I moved to L.A. The air smelled like jasmine and the bright broadness of the streets felt, sometimes, like an opening instead of a closing. In private I resumed projects shot in the suburbs. Quiet domestics. And then I woke up one morning to a group email from an old film-school classmate. She was in town next week, and was anyone in the area up for a reunion? I picked K’s email out from among the noise, as I’d always picked out K herself.
Like the day in the Camaro, I didn’t notice K until she flagged me down. She disappeared into a sea of other women in the café where I’d asked her to meet me alone. The “It” color that year was blue, and I was looking for K’s brown sweater, her black skirt.
I said her name as I approached. She was plumper. Gone the knife pleats and severe hair, gone the points of her knees and elbows. She wore a pale blue two-piece suit and her hair was set in a neat brown bob, the ends curled under.
“I go by Kate now,” she corrected me. Her voice was no longer flat, but cheapened by a lilt such as women have all over the world. It let in air and doubt. She no longer spoke her name — spoke anything — as if it were fact. Hadn’t her name been Kimiko? Kiriko?
“Thank you for coming.” I pushed my phone across the table. “I want to show you this.”
To say I’d imagined this moment for years would be an exaggeration. To begin with, I hadn’t always imagined a phone — before the ubiquity of the device in my pocket, I’d imagined a portable DVD player, or a digital camcorder with a screen that flipped out. In the very first version of this scene, I’d imagined a reel of film I slid across the table, and I’d imagined watching it in my apartment, K on the lumpen couch I owned before I sold my first installation to MoMA, the points of her knees pushing through her skirt. But times changed. Now, on a screen hardly wider than her palm, her knees exposed and slightly pudgy in her skirt suit, K watched the last film of my first series. It most deliberately copied Takashi’s lost work. By the time of its making I’d had the budget to rent a storeroom, though I’d chosen hogs and not steers — they were easier to slice. It was the best film I’d ever made. I’d never shown it.
As K watched, the flesh near her mouth crumpled in distaste.
“It’s not my kind of thing,” K said. She laughed, hand over mouth — polite. It was the third time I’d heard her laugh. She named her kind of thing: a Hollywood tear-jerker that had swept the Oscars, marketed toward older, middle-class women. “I can’t believe you’re still making these! You’re so talented.”
“You were the talent.” At 19, the words had seemed physically impossible to say. Two decades later I spoke them quickly, with irritation. “I didn’t make this, I stole it. Don’t you remember Frank Takashi?”
For one moment, the old K sat there. The one I couldn’t read. Vertigo gripped me as I stared into her blank eyes. I held onto the edge of the table. The server came around and took our orders. He spoke of raw-pressed and house-made things. When he left K had lightened again, her voice returning to the breathy girlishness she hadn’t had as a girl.
“It rings a bell,” K said. “A video game, right?” She was nodding before I could respond, her short hair tapping her shoulders.
“Really — graphic. We were such kids! But this film is very different. You should be proud of what you’ve done.” Bovine good-naturedness shone through K, the kind my parents had emanated up until the day they died. “You’re kind to flatter me, though, really, I was just playing around. I never had your dedication.”
“You were better than me,” I said.
“That’s not true.”
“You’re exaggerating.” K smiled and I remembered the afternoon we’d faced each other on the stairs in her summer house. That girl might have gone on standing until the storm broke, the fields dried, until the end of time itself. And as I had then, I submitted to K’s politeness. I’d destroyed Takashi’s film, after all. What could I say? Besides — what if K wasn’t lying? What if I was just that poor an imitator?
K filled me in on her life as we ate. A bankruptcy in her father’s business — they had never been ambassadors — and a flight back to Japan. Camera broken in transit, no means to buy a new one. A summer spent reading romances. Enrollment in a Japanese university, a husband, two children — one 6, one 12, the latter celebrating his birthday at Disneyland on this trip. She didn’t watch films.
When my turn came, K cooed in delight over my prizes and filmography. It was clear she didn’t recognize the names I cited. She might as well have been applauding her 6-year-old for eating vegetables. Quicker and quicker I went, reciting my CV with a thick tongue. Though the café didn’t serve dairy, I tasted sour milk. Heavy cream. K asked, in a motherly voice, if I felt okay. I signaled for the bill and asked one last question.
This time, K’s face was all too readable. Her expression unmistakably pity. “Oh,” she said after a pause. “I’d almost forgotten about that night in my parent’s house. What a phase!”
The check arrived. K opened her wallet, saying the things women say when they want the separation to be clean, wound-free. She said we should get dinner next time. She said, with our husbands. I remembered Takashi’s knife slipping through the cold steers; they hadn’t bled, either.
K stood to go, putting on sunglasses. After 20 years, her face had changed; now the metal arms pressed into her plump temples, and one side of her jaw sagged lower than the other. She said something about eye protection and the L.A. light, speaking again in that tone of warm concern. A domestic tone. She laughed for the fourth time. I could see into her mouth, where the teeth were perfect and white. The iron filling gone.
The first of the four times I saw K laugh was when she won the first-year award, as if the trophy weren’t an honor but a cosmic joke. I’d seen the flash of iron in her mouth as she stood on the podium, raised above us, and hadn’t understood; now I did.
K laid down cash. After she left, I would find that she’d paid for both of us and then some, and though I didn’t need the money that day, though I was a decade away from the end of speaking invitations, from the crossing of the line between hermit and has-been, I took her money. Forty dollars. I would never use the bills, but periodically I’d look at them in the red slipcase where I stored them. As K turned to leave the café, she faced the mirrored wall behind us. It was as bright as a field of pale, wheating grass on the longest day of summer. Both of us were reflected. Me shorter and skinnier where I sat, K taller and plumper on her heels. I wore a long black skirt and flat men’s shoes. I half-raised my hand. And she — My vision blurred, as it does more often these days, so that, applying eye drops, I feel the wet slide down my cheek, the phantom sound of K’s former voice, curiously flat, explaining the phenomenon of unfiltered exposure. I blinked. The blur, and the woman in the mirror, were gone.
C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, will be published in April 2020 by Riverhead Books in the U.S. and Virago Press in the U.K. Born in Beijing but mostly an artifact of the United States, Zhang now lives in San Francisco.